My Most Obscure Christmas Tradition: Christmas Cake

Fruitcake is the butt of many jokes in the United States. One of my earliest memories of TV was of an episode of a show that was making fun of fruitcake. But I’ve discovered that properly made fruitcake is not only delicious, it’s one of my mother’s favorite things. So for years now, I’ve endeavored to make her a Christmas cake.

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Proper Christmas cake does not involve any dyed cherries. And it involves a lot of brandy. And time. I make my Christmas cake the weekend after Thanksgiving and mature it for a month before consumption, at least. Some years, I’m remiss and forget to make the cake until closer to Christmas, in which case it becomes more of a mid-to-late January cake, rather than a Christmas cake.

But one thing is always the same: no raisins. And no dyed fruit.

I often use the recipe in Nigella Lawson’s fabulous book How to Be a Domestic Goddess, but this year I decided to try something different. I used this recipe from the BBC, and used my own blend of dried fruit. I used mostly currants, with some dried cherries, apricots, and bits of minced candied ginger. I often include dried sugared pineapple, but I forgot it this year.

The house smelled like Christmas as I simmered the fruit, brandy, butter, sugar, and spices, and then baked the cake for two hours. Then, I fed the cake with a bit more brandy and wrapped it tightly with paper and string. That whole thing went into a sealed zipper bag, although an airtight, decorative tin would be more aesthetically pleasing. Every so often, two or three times before Christmas, I would unwrap it, feed it a bit more brandy, and rewrap it until the big day.

One thing I’ve learned is to eat homemade fruitcake in very thin slices. The flavors are strong and the brandy is potent. But it makes a lovely addition to a tray of holiday sweets, either on Christmas Eve, or as friends and relatives pop by throughout the season.

Cozy Winter Style

As you can tell by the title of my blog, I love to wrap up in warm fabrics and drink hot tea. I really do like tweed, in all its scratchy woolen glory. And this time of year, my collection of tweeds and knits and scarves really gets to shine.

Monday, I was thrilled to receive my new winter coat, a brown herringbone tweed overcoat from a vintage seller on Etsy. It has nubs of blue and orange in it, and a subtle tartan pattern. Not only did the photographs on Etsy not do it justice at all, it fit perfectly, with just enough room that I might layer it over sweaters. It makes me glad the weather has started to taken on more of a chill.

Holiday Weekend Shopping

Underneath my coat, my cold-weather staples are long trousers and blue jeans, cabled sweaters, scarves, and my wonderful knee-length black riding boots. A pair of leather boots zipped up over a pair of slim-fitting straight-leg jeans, with a cabled sweater and a squishy scarf is the quintessential winter style to me. On the rare occasion I venture out into the cold air in a skirt, I wear a pair of thick tights or leggings, with socks over top, all tucked into my riding boots.

Cozy Workday Outfit

My favorite sweater is a fisherman-cabled sweater in a mottled oatmeal color that I wear most weekends, but it lacks the necessary elan for the office. To that end, I have a cream-colored cabled sweater in a butter-soft wool blend, a collection of cardigans, and two cowl-necked merino wool sweaters. Paired with a pair of jeans on the weekend, or a pair of vintage tweed trousers for work, my sweaters are vital for keeping warm while I walk from place to place. Whether I’m taking a stroll around the lake, or a hurried walk from my car, parked ages away from my building, I need to keep from suffering the bite of winter air.

I’ve put together some sets in Polyvore to show what I mean. Of course, I chose items mostly based on looks, so some are quite expensive, but it is the look of the thing I mean to convey. Hopefully, they will help inspire your cozy winter wardrobe!

Everyday Scones

When I was little, my mother taught me about table manners by having tea parties. I never really understood the fake tea parties you see children characters on television having because when I had a tea party, I did not invite my stuffed animals and serve imaginary food. My mother set out real china and had finger sandwiches and scones.

Scones are one of my favorite baked goods, and something that I’ve perfected in my baking repetoire, although I generally bake rich, light cream scones. The other day, I woke up and I wanted scones with my breakfast tea, so I found a recipe for English scones, which tend to be less sweet and greasy than those things you find in American coffeeshops. And then I tweaked it just a little, using one cup of sprouted whole wheat flour and one cup of cake flour for the two cups of plain flour. They baked up tender, with enough structure to hold onto butter and jam at breakfast.

I folded in a handful of currants, leftover from Christmas cake baking, just before shaping and cutting them. It reminded me of the time I offered a friend a currant scone, to which he looked bewildered and answered, “Well, I wouldn’t want a past scone.” Some misunderstanding about “currant” versus “current,” it would seem. But these were both current scones and currant scones. I cut them into wedges, put two of them on a baking sheet, and tucked them into a hot oven.

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And then, I froze the rest of the batch. I laid them out on a baking sheet lined with parchment, put them in the freezer for about an hour, and then moved the now-solid wedges to a plastic zipper bag and froze them. So now, when I wake up in the morning, I can take a scone or two out of the freezer and put them on a baking sheet, preheat my oven, and have scones in about 15 minutes, just long enough to gather my wits, brew a cup of tea, and lay out the rest of my breakfast.

Half-Wheat Scones
(adapted from here)

1 cup cake flour
1 cup sprouted wheat flour
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. sugar
4 Tbsp. butter, cut into cubes
1 beaten egg
6-8 Tbsp. milk
handful of dried fruit, peel, or nuts (optional)

Preheat your oven to 425 F and line a baking sheet with a piece of parchment. Stir together the flours, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Scatter the bits of butter over the dry mixture and work the butter in with your fingers until it resembles crumbly pebbles. Beat together the egg and 5 Tbsp. of milk and add to the dry ingredients. Stir together, adding more milk a dribble at a time if needed, until it comes together into a nice dough. Fold in the fruit or nuts or peel now it you like. Form into a circle and pat to 1/2″ thick. Cut into 8 wedges and bake for 8 or 9 minutes, until golden at the edges.

My Workday Tea Sanctuary

I am a staunch tea-drinker, in contrast to the coffee culture of many offices. So I have my own little collection of tea things at the office. It’s become a sort of break from the workday when I make my cups of tea throughout the day.

The workhorse is my electric kettle. I had shared one with a coworker for a while, but I recently got my own. Since it sits out on my desk, I decided to spring for an attractive ceramic kettle. I think the floral pattern cheers up my cube, although with my flowery kettle and hand-crocheted shawl, I must be someone’s granny! The kettle holds just enough water for two mugs of tea, so I generally fill it once in the morning and once in the afternoon.kettleFrom there, I move to my tea mug. It has an infuser and a lid, which is great because I can brew whole-leave tea very easily, allowing plenty of room for it to unfurl, and then use the lid as a rest for the infuser, or put the lid on to keep the tea hot during long meetings. It cleans easily if I dump out the old leaves and leave it to dry upside down.

My tea collection at work ebbs and flows, but I try to have at least one green tea, one oolong, and one black tea. I like Rishi Tea a lot. Their company is friendly and their teas are top-notch. I generally ask for some of their more exotic stuff for holiday gifts. Right now, I have a tin of Jade Cloud green tea, a tin of their Wuyi oolong tea, and a tin of Republic of Tea’s Assam Breakfast tea. I also have the end of a tin of an expensive milk oolong tea from a local tea shop.

Rishi Tea’s Wuyi oolong is one of my favorite teas. It has a subtle floral-honey taste to it and brews a beautifully delicate amber color. The milk oolong I have is slightly less oxidized and I brew it for longer. It has a strong creamy aroma, which is characteristic of that style of oolong. Jade Cloud is my go-to green tea because it’s inexpensive. It has vegetal and seaweed notes. And as the weather cools, I’ve been favoring black teas more, so the Assam Breakfast has been my morning tea of choice, brewing up very dark and stimulating with a faint syrupy-raisiny flavor and aroma.

I generally steep my tea leaves three times throughout the day, adding about 30 seconds each time I steep. This is both economical and I think reduces the amount of total caffeine I drink, but I get a lovely aroma and experience each time. I consider it a waste to only experience a serving of leaves once. My tea time is my mini-break. I tend to brew a cup of tea when I get to my desk, while I collect my thoughts and focus my day, and then again with lunch, and again in the afternoon with a little snack to recharge before the final couple of hours of the work day.

My Vintage-Inspired Beauty Routine, Part 1: Skincare

I’ve decided I ought to post a little about my beauty routine, since it is such a large part of my personal style. First, I’ll talk about my skincare routine, since it is the most complicated part of my beauty practices. I’ve based my skincare routine on what I’ve read of Victorian women. I cleanse with a cream instead of soap and use warm and cold water to close pores. I also focus on natural ingredients, like rosewater and lavender, and homemade treatments. I do most of my skincare in the evening before bed and wash only with water in the mornings before applying makeup.

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Nightly Routine:

I start by removing my makeup and cleansing. I use Andalou Naturals Lash and Lid Remover and their Apricot Probiotic Cleansing Milk. Both are thick creams, almost like a cold cream but without the nasty chemicals in Pond’s. Even though my skin tends towards oiliness, I find the cleansing milk leaves my skin clean without drying it out, so I don’t need to worry about too much in the way of moisturizer. And it has a lovely apricot smell.

After that, I rinse and pat dry. I might mist with rosewater if I’m feeling luxuriant. Then, I simply massage in some oil. I alternate rosehip seed oil and a homemade oil blend of grapeseed oil, sea buckthorn oil, a little carrot seed oil, and lavender oil. The rosehip seed oil has vitamin A, but is not recommended for daily use on acne-prone skin. I’ve noticed a big improvement in the quality of my skin since I started using it half the time. The homemade oil blend is based on a recipe from Crunchy Betty. I use a base of grapeseed oil because it’s got a lot of linoleic acid, which is better for acne-prone skin. I add sea buckthorn oil for the vitamins and beneficial fatty acids. Carrot seed oil can heal and protect against sun damage, so I add a good deal of that. But it is strong-smelling stuff, so I add lavender for scent, and because it’s mildly anti-bacterial.

This whole routine probably takes about five minutes, but I don’t notice the time. Having an enjoyable, yet not-too-complicated routine makes me look forward to my bedtime ritual. I find that my skin is pretty good, with the occasional blemish when my hormones swing, or when I’m lazy about washing my face. I also like the glow from massaging in my oil right before I go to bed. It makes me feel like a Victorian beauty. Right before I go to sleep, I massage a little homemade beeswax balm into my lips and cuticles.

Weekly Treatments:

Because I wash with a washcloth in the morning, I don’t do a lot of exfoliation otherwise, but I do find my skin gets a bit dull sometimes. I try to exfoliate once or twice a week, with a mixture of 1 Tbsp. sugar, 1 tsp. lemon juice, and 1 tsp. olive oil. This makes a very gritty scrub, so I apply it and massage it gently after removing my eye makeup but before cleansing. I rinse with hot water, and then cleanse as usual.

Once a week, I do a mask. I mix about a tablespoon of French green clay with a capsule of activated charcoal powder and enough water to make a creamy paste. I apply this after exfoliating and cleansing and let it stay on 10-15 minutes. The clay and charcoal draw out impurities and definitely shrink blemishes. I then remove the mask and tone with Thayer’s Alcohol-Free Lavender Witch Hazel before applying oil. This weekly ritual leaves my skin soft and clear and helps draw out any makeup that was left behind during the week. I especially make sure to do it after I’ve been on stage that week in heavier makeup.

A somewhat involved evening routine gives way to my incredibly simple morning routine: I massage my face with a wet washcloth and then rinse with warm and cool water. I sometimes mist my face with rosewater when I get out of the shower. On the rare morning that I don’t shower, I often just splash my face with water from the sink to remove any traces of oil from the night before that didn’t soak in. This leaves me with a clean canvas for whatever makeup I want for the day ahead.

A Little Bit of Christmas

This past weekend, I made a decision. I’ve put up my first Christmas tree of my own. I should say, “of our own,” as Boyfriend helped me pick it out and decorate it. We decided on a fake tree to appease our housemate, and reduce the maintenance a real tree can require. We found this little guy, really an outdoor tree, at the Home Depot. He’s just big enough to hold a few of my favorite keepsake ornaments.

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Then, Boyfriend and I went to my mother’s house to pick through her Christmas box and take the ornaments with particular sentimental value, mostly ones that I was given as gifts over the years. There are the stuffed animals, such as the cat a good friend in grammar school made me, and the little bear I shoplifted when I was 2. And there are the animals, mostly cats for me and reptiles for my sister. There are my ballet slippers, from the few years I danced ballet, badly, as a young child. It has “To our best ballerina” written on the back, but that was before my sister came along and bested me in all forms of rhythmic movement.

Since we don’t yet have a topper, my mom tucked a roll of repurposed red ribbon into the box with the ornaments and I used it to fashion a makeshift tree topper. And my nutcracker, given to me not by Santa, but by Godpapa Drosselmeyer when I was a girl, stood watch over the whole thing. With cocoa and port and Christmas music, it made for a lovely holiday evening.

In My Queue: Rosemary and Thyme

I’ve mentioned before that I’m an Anglophile, and one of my favorite things about the UK is their entertainment. I don’t watch normal TV, but I keep lots of British TV shows in my Netflix queue. Lately, I’ve started watching the series Rosemary and Thyme, a cozy mystery series about a duo who solves crimes focused around gardens.

The basic premise is that Rosemary, a plant pathologist who has lost her position at a university, and Laura Thyme, a jilted policeman’s wife, meet over the death of Laura’s brother. While Laura helps Rosemary diagnose some horticultural problems at the house, the two of them figure out whodunit and decide to team up. They travel the countryside, taking jobs from those with gardens who need tending. And if someone mysteriously ends up dead? Well, that’s within their area of expertise.

One of my favorite things about the show is the scenery, all set in the English countryside, with a few overseas episodes. And in the first series, at least, I was amused that various characters the two women meet assume their involved as more than just friends and garden partners. Laura Thyme has one of the most beautiful reactions to a particulary ham-handed bout of homophobia from one detective.

It really is hilarious how thin the pretense can be. It’s like death just manifests around these two. I think the show flirts with self-awareness toward the end of the first season, when Laura expresses concern that their current job has to do with “the tree of death.” One would think she might be getting tired of all the coincidental deaths mucking up their gardening.

A Full Breakfast

Weekends are for errands and long walks and lounging with a pot of tea. And for big breakfasts. This weekend, I decided I’d make myself and Boyfriend a full English breakfast.

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An English breakfast consists of bacon and eggs and toast, but also grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, and a pool of baked beans. And it is washed down with copious amounts of strong black tea. I had mine with a little milk. Often, it includes sausage links as well as bacon, but I decided to limit myself to one breakfast meat.

Our Saturday morning was wonderful. I dragged him out of bed a little after 8 a.m., to bundle up for a walk around the lake near our house. I wrapped up in fleece leggings, a long skirt, a thick cabled wool sweater, my vest, a scarf, my boots, and my crocheted ear warmer and found myself toasty warm, other than a bit of nip at my nose. It was chilly and clear and very quiet. There were a few runners out. Even some of the geese were still sleeping. Boyfriend was not too pleased to be up and about at that hour, but it was a lovely start to the day. And I knew he would appreciate what we had in store for us when we got home.

When I got home, I threw the rashers of bacon in the oven to bake. I got a pack of nice thick-cut bacon from a local farmer. Eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, butter, and milk were all also from nearby farmers, and I had a loaf of homemade bread in the freezer. I tipped the tin of beans into a small saucepan and put it on a low flame to warm up while the bacon cooked, and washed up the veggies. When the bacon started getting sizzly, I started frying up the mushrooms and then tomatoes, and turned the beans up a touch so they started to bubble. I toasted the bread and spread it with plenty of butter. And lastly, the eggs went in the pan to cook gently in some butter.

While all this went on, I boiled the electric kettle and made a pot of Assam tea and laid out my tea tray. Everything came together beautifully, and by shortly after 10, we had our plates. I poured some tiny glasses of orange juice because Boyfriend likes it, and I thought a small glass could do me some good in the dead of winter. We devoured our breakfasts, some of us faster than others, and I sat and sipped tea and finished The Secret Adversary, which I’d started the day before. By the time it hit noon, I felt invigorated with the walk and sustained with food and tea and was ready to run some holiday errands!

A Cozy Start to the Weekend

Yesterday, I came home from work chilled. It was cold and blustery, and I had chosen too light a jacket for the day. I needed to snuggle up, so I made myself a cup of tea,  put on some fleece leggings and a wool sweater, and snuggled up with my favorite cashmere shawl and an Agatha Christie book on my Kindle.

My cashmere shawl is actually my boyfriend’s shawl. He got it for Christmas from a family friend who didn’t quite understand why it was too big to be a scarf. It’s very soft cashmere in a grey-black-white plaid pattern and it’s the coziest thing.

After maybe an hour snuggled up, Boyfriend got home and we considered dinner. I had thawed two fish fillets, which I wrapped up with lemon and olive oil and salt and pepper into little packets. These nestled in the oven along with some cubed butternut squash and potatoes tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper. The veggies roasted and the fish steamed. When it was all done, I steamed some kale quickly and dished the whole thing up. It was both light and hearty at the same time. I find potatoes have a kind of comforting solidness to them that makes any meal more warming.

After dinner, we continued to relax, he with a scotch and myself with a glass of port. It was just the perfect beginning to the weekend.

Ink-Stained Fingers (or Out, Damned Spot)

I got a new fountain pen yesterday. This one came only with a converter so I also got a bottle of ink and had to figure that out. The result is that my fingers still have greyish splotches of ink on them, even after a lot of handwashing.

But I think fountain pens are an essential part of my desire to train myself to have beautiful handwriting. I was taught handwriting as a young child and generally rebelled against it. I could focus very hard and make my writing pretty decent if I printed. I did this when I taught at the chalkboard. But leaving teaching left me with a bit of a scribbled hand.

So I sat down one morning at my writing desk (which was also a vanity) and decided to learn how to write neatly. I copied out the exercises of loops and sticks and wrote out each letter many times. Then, I copied out Paradise Lost to practice. And it worked.

And when I felt like I’d improved, I bought myself a monogrammed purple marbled pen from Levenger. But it was so nice, that I never let it leave home. I contented myself with gel-roller pens. So when I was ordering some new office supplies the other day, I saw an inexpensive, art-deco-style fountain pen. I threw it into the order, along with a bottle of black ink.

When it arrived, I realized there were no instructions on filling it, so I improvised. Which proved to be messy. But I filled my new pen, and re-filled my old pen, so now I have two beautiful fountain pens full of jet black ink. And the ink stains are fading well enough anyway.